The decision to try 9/11 suspects in a New York City federal court was a "tough call" but Americans should not doubt the ability of the U.S. judicial system to bring justice, Attorney General Eric Holder said today.
"We need not cower in the face of this enemy," he said. "Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is sturdy, our resolve is firm and our people are ready."
Holder's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee today directly addressed critics of his decision, some of whom suggest that the move signals a return to a pre-9/11 mind-set that considered terror suspects more like criminals than enemy combatants.
"Prosecuting the 9/11 defendants in federal court does not represent some larger judgment about whether or not we're at war," he said. "We are at war and we will use every instrument of national power -- civilian, military, law enforcement, intelligence, diplomatic and others -- to win."
Misinformation about procedures for terror trials in federal courts has clouded understanding of his decision, he said.
He cited the history of successful terrorism trials in U.S. courts, resulting in the conviction of more than 300 international and domestic terrorists now in U.S. prisons.
But several Republican senators took aim at Holder's claim that the choice of venue for the trials was based on where prosecutors would be most likely to obtain justice.
"You said the chances of success are enhanced [in federal courts]," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., "How can you be more likely to get a conviction in an article 3 court when Khalid Sheik Mohammed has asked to plead guilty before a military commission and be executed?"
"These trials do not hinge on the desire of Khalid Sheik Mohammed," Holder responded. "My job is to look at the possibilities. Khalid Sheik Mohammed is not making this decision."
But many critics say military commissions would be a better venue to try the alleged terrorists.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said Holder's decision sets a bad precedent and may cause confusion in how future terror suspects would be treated.
"We're making history and we're making bad history," he said. "If Osama bin Laden were captured, where would be tried?"
"We'd go through our protocol," Holder replied.
"But why wouldn't you do through the process where you brought Khalid Sheik Mohammed?" Graham followed.
"It would depend," Holder said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the committee's ranking Republican, called Holder's decision to bring the Gitmo suspects to U.S. soil a "dangerous," "misguided" and "unnecessary" one. "The U.S. court system was not designed to try unlawful enemy combatants," Sessions said. "These are not normal criminals."
Sessions and other Republican senators questioned whether classified materials can remain adequately protected during trial in a federal court. Some also insisted the trials would provide a public forum for the suspects to voice their views.
Holder disputed those arguments, saying Americans should not fear anything an alleged terrorist might say.
"I have every confidence that the presiding judge will ensure appropriate decorum," he said. "And, if [alleged 9/11 mastermind] Khalid Sheik Mohammed makes the same statements he made in his military commission proceedings, I have every confidence the nation and the world will see him for the coward he is.